McHenry County Cemeteries
Final resting places tell the story of the community and its growth.
Throughout McHenry County, cemeteries—the final resting places of those who came before—abound. From small discreet family burial grounds to larger community cemeteries, these final resting places tell the story of the community and its growth.In the 1800s, burials could be held on the family farm. According to Margaret Richardson’s entry in the book “McHenry County in the Twentieth Century,” frugal farmers would bury the deceased in a fence row so as not to waste valuable land. After 1900, a law was passed requiring a dedicated burial ground or cemetery.
While many of these burial grounds are as pristinely kept as they were in the 1800s, some have become overgrown with weeds and brush, perhaps because there are no longer any descendants in the area to watch over them.
For Rich Tobiasz and Laura Frumat, uncovering the stories behind the graves has been a successful task. For the past four years, they have shared the history that lies in the Spring Grove cemeteries by holding an annual cemetery walk, highlighting a different cemetery each year.
“It is important to keep the history of what these people contributed alive,” said Tobiasz, the fire chief of Spring Grove and a professional storyteller. “If we don’t keep track, we won’t know about our past.” He also notes that these were all interesting people who endured difficult times in the 1800s to make a home in this area.
“John Sanborn [who arrived around 1836] made his first home by digging out a gulley in the side of a hill,” said Frumat. “The field stones that he used to line the gully can still be seen where he placed them.”
Cemeteries Take Us Back in Time
Meandering through the cemeteries, it becomes apparent that a large number of infants and children passed away early in life. In the 1800s and early 1900s, children and adults were vulnerable to diseases that have been eradicated or are easily treated today. Whooping cough and diphtheria were often fatal to children. And, because the disease would spread in families, it was not uncommon for there to be several deaths in the same family.
In the Orvis Cemetery on James Road in Spring Grove, the graves of Clarinda and Minerva Sanborn, who died of diphtheria just four days apart in 1860, are a reminder of the severity of illness in the 1800s. Influenza too would often spread through a community, claiming entire families. The Orvis Cemetery, located in the middle of farmers’ fields, is surrounded by a concrete wall five feet tall to protect it from desecration.
Tucked away in a scrub of brush and trees lies the Lawson-Wray Cemetery. Located just north of Spring Grove on Richardson Road, it is not a cemetery you will stumble upon just riding through the area. Invisible from the road because of the overgrowth that surrounds it, this small stand of trees borders the Richardson Farm on the north and a subdivision of houses on the south.
The broken stones of Thomas and Alice Wray mark the site of a burial here in 1859. The cemetery was originally a part of the Lawson Farm and as such, the Lawson family plot is the largest and is distinguished by a tall obelisk in the center. There are cement markers at the corners of the family’s plot. Family members are buried in a random fashion around the obelisk, not in straight lines as today’s cemeteries are plotted.
Jonathon Imeson and his wife, Mary Wray, who are also buried in this cemetery, are credited with giving birth to the first set of twins by settlers. Nearby, the twin lakes of Wisconsin were named Elizabeth and Mary after the girls. The last burial in this cemetery took place in 1999 when Inez Buralli was laid to rest.
The first known settler to die in Burton Township was Elizabeth Richardson, wife of Frank, in 1837—one year after her arrival here. She was buried in the area now known as English Prairie Cemetery. This cemetery has been maintained over the years by the Richardson family through private donations.
Nestled alongside St. Patrick’s Church in McHenry, the parish cemetery recorded the burial of John Frisby in 1851 as the first burial at that site. Although there are graves with earlier dates, it is believed that they were moved from the parish’s original burial ground.
St. Patrick’s first mausoleum was built in the late 1920s to hold the remains of George Sayer and later his wife Rose. Sayer, a businessman, was considered to be the wealthiest resident of Pistakee Bay. Three trust funds were set up to provide perpetual care for the mausoleum and its grounds. However, when the funds ran out, cemetery officials decided to demolish the building and rebury the Sayers in the ground—a move that probably would not have been appreciated by Rose Sayer.
Markers of Style
Over the course of time, varying monuments have been used to mark final resting places. They have traditionally been composed of stone or marble, a substance that is meant to last forever. In the early pioneer days, the stones reflected the simplicity of the time. Most were simple flat curved stones. By the Victorian period, roughly 1880 to the early 1900s, monument styles, like the homes and dress of the time, became more intricate. Obelisks and other ornate styles were popular choices, often with symbolic carvings. Clasped hands were used to symbolize death while a dove was often used as a symbol of peace. Today, most modern cemeteries have adopted the look of the memorial garden and have embraced the use of flat stones to create a more esthetic look of peaceful open space.
The Miller family of McHenry has owned the Miller Monument Company since the 1800s. In the 1800s and early 1900s, each stone was mined from a local quarry. The stone would be cut to size, hand carved by a local craftsman and polished before it was placed in the cemetery. Today, the monuments are ordered from a larger company, with the local monument company responsible for setting the stones in the cemetery.
Appreciation of Local History-makers
The McHenry Landmark Commission has sponsored two cemetery walks in the past to highlight St. Patrick’s Cemetery and Woodland and St. Mary’s Cemeteries. On October 18 at 10 a.m., The McHenry Area Historical Society will hold an indoor cemetery walk at McHenry Savings Bank (353 Bank Dr. in McHenry, 815-385-3000). Against a cemetery backdrop, friends and descendants of local families will present a glimpse into McHenry’s past.
According to Marya Dixon, president of the group, this will be a unique way of looking at the cemeteries without worrying about the cooperation of the weather. While burial customs change over time, respect for the deceased continues to play an important part in the community.